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Stories by Mike Humfreville

The Tempests of Summer - Bahía de Los Angeles 1985, Part 22: Fishing Pals    ( Posted July 26, 2004 )

I woke up about 5:45 the next morning to the sound of footsteps in the gravel. Barsam was up and loading fishing gear into my boat and filling a small chest with cold beer. He was above all American, but he had been raised by very Armenian parents, fresh from the old country. It always bore watching when he worked. Into the chest with the cold beers he meticulously placed a few pieces of ice frozen in small containers in the refrigerator of his motorhome overnight. He didn't just reach into an ice chest and take a bucket of ice and throw it into the smaller chest. He was very conscientious of excess. We always ribbed him because he was the only guy in our friend-set that clipped and shopped coupons. It was Barsam that was always the first up in the morning and had prepared the boat for the day's fishing. He was the one to quietly leave the evening gathering for a few moments to prepare the boat for the next morning's run. His father and mother must have hung heavily within him, reflecting the conditions that prevailed in Eastern Europe earlier in the last century.

In a few minutes those of us going fishing were all awake. We washed our faces and brushed our teeth in the ocean and within a minute or two were ready to go. All, that is, except Peter, who was lobbying for coffee. He howled so loud and long it was easier to pacify than deny him. We sat idling while he had his coffee and were soon enough off for the inside of Smith's with the three boats, running each at its own pitch and with its unique irregularities.

We dropped down into the channel with salas's and yoyo'd the bottom for a while and had several moderate hookups which we threw into the back of the boat. By 7 we broke out the first beer and wore out the yoyoing and moved to the northern point of Smith in the channel between Smith's and Coronadilla. We bottom fished with little luck, tried the north side of Coronadilla and moved into shallower water in the bay on the outside of Smith's north end. When we left the shade of the island the sun hit the boat with full force. We sweated in the heat, pulling our lines in, casting, sinking and pulling in again. Barsam was always the first to get his line in the water and the last to reel it in. He was competitive, and operated on the surefire principle that the guy that kept his line in the water the longest would catch the most fish. He was almost always right. A nominal catch for three guys in a boat on the average day in summer back then was between eight and fifteen mid-sized yellowtail, in the twenty-to-thirty-pound range. If there were no yellows we would fish for bottom grabbers. Our collective favorite of the bottom variety was what the locals call Cabazon. This is what gringos called Jawfish, but we didn't know it. They seem to hang out in a hundred feet of water with a sandy bottom. When you are in their vicinity they are easy but no fun to catch. They are about the best fish ever for beer batter deep-frying.

The guys were full of laughs between the three boats. One of us would hook up only to be harassed by the others regarding the small fish that we pulled reluctantly from the depths. Peter was the pilot of one boat and while we were all collected in an area but not catching much, he fired up the engine and headed a mile or two north to another hole or reef. After a half hour of catching nothing our other two boats moved to Peter's location. As we approached his boat, from about a hundred meters out, we could see the guys had hooked something unusual. Peter reeled in a sea snake, about three feet long and bright green. He hauled the evil looking thing over the side and waved it at poles length in front of his two boat mates, who shrunk into the extremities of the small craft. I was piloting my boat and pulled close to see what exactly he had caught. The head of the snake was the most noteworthy. It was bright green with long bright red protrusions above its eyes that that looked like shaggy eyebrows. It had the head shape that we are taught to be wary of, triangular, with large cavities behind the eyes for poison.

The three boats, seeing the snake, had all clustered within a few yards of each other. About the time we were all realizing this snake must be poisonous, a strange shadow crossed Peters face followed by his Harrison Ford crooked and devilish grin and we knew he was up to no good. We jammed the engines into gear and pulled a safe distance away almost as fast as Peter grabbed the venomous beast by the tail and swung it around to throw it at us. But a fortunate swell from our hasty retreats threw him off balance and as he struggled to regain his legs, he dropped the snake to the bottom of his own boat.

Peters' boat is not simple like mine. His boat has a bottom of slatted wood that runs from bow to transom. Into this false bottom Peter has built many storage cabinets and bait tanks and whatever else he could find use for in his fourteen-foot barge. It was into this morass that the slippery snake fell, that menacing, twisting and ugly, threatening and evil thing was loose in Peter's boat! The three people therein couldn't get out of each other's way fast enough.

Johnnie Boyd, Dave and Peter rushed to grab any gaff, oar or stick they could lay hands on, being careful not to put their hands or feet where they couldn't see. From a safe distance the rest of us were whooping and catcalling indiscrete suggestions about abandoning ship and swimming for shore, which was miles away. Too soon they located the snake, coiled in a crevice, snagged him with the gaff and flung him, hissing and spitting but unharmed, away from the boat and back into the ocean.

We were having a great time fishing but were doing poorly in the catching department. While we were stopped in the water, now that the snake had been disposed of, Bar and I were scanning the distance, looking for birds. From several miles away we saw a small swirling mass, black specks in the sky, working an area well north of Smith's. We shouted to the drivers and all headed north, outside the channel.

It took us a few minutes to arrive at the site. During this time, pumping through the water at top speeds of twenty knots, birds were passing us in their rush to get to the fish. We were all rigging our lines with whatever we wanted for casting into a boil. As we neared the birds were so thick in the sky that they shut out the worst of the sun. Thousands of gulls, goonies, Frigates and pelicans were flying in a circle at least three hundred meters in diameter. In any instant at least a hundred birds hit the water beneath their swirling airborne mass, each kicking up small spouts as they struck the surface, each adding to the turmoil. Thousands more birds were in the water, swallowing fish, waiting for clearance to take back to the sky and dive again. The sea away from this violence was calm. No wind was blowing. Inside the boil the water was rough and churning. The bait was desperately fighting by the millions to avoid the attacking yellowtail and birds.

Our three boats pulled into the center of this furor, cutting the engines and casting lures into the fish as the boats slowed. Within seconds several of us had solid hookups. Bang! Dive for the rocks to snap the line. Straight down they'd go until we thought we couldn't hold them. Adjust the drag. Bring in whatever line you could. Another run downward. Crank it in! 200, 150, 100 feet. Coming up now, 50 feet. Spot the bottom of the boat and make a final run! Do a long and slow retrieve required by our six-to-one ratio reels. Soon we were gaffing and hauling twenty-pounders over the hull.

This went on for fifteen minutes with "Hookup!" ringing frequently in the air. The guys in each boat had no time to spare; they worked quickly and as teams, bring in line, gaffing, working fish to the back of the boat, keeping lines from tangling.

Gradually the boil widened and was less intense. The birds began to thin and the surface calmed. Activities returned to tranquil. And we had three boatsfull of yellowtail. During the fifteen to twenty minutes we had caught three or four fish each. Coupled with the catch of earlier we were going to be hard pressed to clean and process it all.

We pulled in lines and headed for camp. Half an hour later we rounded the point of La Gringa, powered across the smooth water of the bay up near the beach, cut the engines and coasted gently onto the small round stones in front of the steps leading to the hut.

Barsam jumped out, retrieved his cleaning table and moved it to the water's edge. The rest of us gathered knives and cleaning boards, washed canning jars, lids and rings. Others fired up the Colemans and got the pressure cookers ready.

We filleted the first few fish, leaving the skin on. I mixed a simple marinade or brown sugar and soy sauce. These first fillets would soak, on ice, over night and would be smoked the next day. We spent an hour working quickly in the noontime heat, male torsos dripping sweat, filleting and skinning the remainder of the fish. We cut these into segments two inched wide and three or four inches long that would serve for dinner and for canning.

From the minute we threw the first fish from the boats onto the beach birds began collecting. Some came so close we had to wave them away. The injured birds are often the most aggressive; they cannot catch food on their own. The pelicans and gulls rocked in the foot-deep water, waiting for the fish skin, heads and innards they knew we would discard. The gulls set off a loud, aggressive cawking, first one then others, until the entire collection was yech-yuch-yeching, a concert of close echoes. The pelicans sat, dignified and majestic, chins tucked, beaktips etching the waters surface, eyes sad and watching our every move, waiting pensively.

When we threw the first handful of gut, skin and bone into the water, several feet from the cleaning table, the scene turned into a feathered war zone. Every bird fought for every scrap. Soon all our children heard the commotion and came to help. They grabbed fish guts that we were tossing under the table, throwing the pieces into the air. The gulls caught the morsels in mid flight. In the shallow water, thousands of tiny fish worked to collect other pieces, too small for the birds. The gulls quarreled over anything they could turn into an argument.

The women had the jars rinsed and set the rings and lids beside the jars. We stuffed quart, pint, half-pint jars with wide-mouths full of the cleaned chunks of pale pink flesh, keeping the level well below the ring on the jar. We added water to just cover the tops of the fish, placed a lid on top of each and twisted the rings on until they were beginning to resist. We put the jars into the pressure cookers, added an inch of sea water, cinched down the lids and turned up the heat, waiting for the water to boil. The pressure inside the cooker slowly rose. As it neared ten pounds we turned down the heat and sat down for an hour and a half's relaxing wait, with nothing more to do than keep an eye and ear on the pressure, have a beer or two, and review the war of the morning.

During the lull, I started the charcoal briquettes in the smoker. Within a few minutes this was burning nicely. I threw some damp citrus chips on the coals, put the chimney of the smoker over the base of coals, set the racks into place and put the filets that had been marinating overnight, dark brown and covered with the sugar-soy marinade, onto the grills and covered the whole assembly with the lid.

While I was doing this and the guys were finishing up the cleaning chore, the ladies were cooking brunch. We ate homegrown eggs from our chickens, scrambled and mixed with Spam or Brazilian canned corned beef, fried potatoes, frijoles and tortillas. We ate lunch relating the morning to each other and those that had been left in camp, finished the food, cleaned up and spent the next hour or two napping, looking for shells, swimming, walking around the nearby hills and plateau or napping again.

By mid afternoon we were regaining our strength. The canning was done and almost all the jars sealed. Those that hadn't we would put on ice and make into tuna salad sandwiches later. Several of the diehards went out fishing. The rest of us recollected in pieces of shade from the flapping tarps we had arranged randomly around the hut, talking, making jokes and laughing. Several of the children had picked up our poles and were casting Salas sixes with conventional reels from the shore, trying to out-do each other. None of the adults wanted anything more to do with catching fish. Several of us decided to make a run for the village, for ice and boat gas. There wasn't usually a problem getting ice in those days, but gas was a sure thing only right after the truck had filled the huge above-ground tanks at the then flourishing Pemex station at the end of the airstrip in the village. In the early eighties I was told that there were five Pemex trucks for the entire peninsula. This was not enough to keep the fuel flowing through the thirsty throats of the outboard carburetors that plied the gulf for fish.

For the run to the village, we rearranged ice chests, transferring contents from one to another, until we had several empties, which we drained and tossed into the rear of the truck. We grabbed gas and water jugs, piled into the Land Cruiser and threaded our way past Barsam's Corner and along the ravines and back to La Gringa. From here the road improved and we barreled along at forty miles an hour, keeping ahead of the thick rising twisting column of dust we were throwing from the roadway. The movement of air from the open windows was cooling in the still heat of the afternoon. Hawks and buzzards perched occasionally on the tops of the cordon and cirio. Their beaks were open and wings out, away from their body, scarecrows on the dry desert landscape. We didn't see another vehicle on this 15-kilometer drive, until we neared the village.

At the Diaz patio we parked in the shade of their single smokewood tree and carried the empty ice chests into the store, where we replenished them with this most luxurious of provisions. We helped ourselves from the accessible Diaz coolers to cervezas of our choosing and sat in the shade on the patio. We had half an hour to waste before Patricio would return from siesta to open the gas station. We talked to the locals about the fishing that day; everyone had had a good catch. At four we grabbed a bag of cookies for the kids, paid our bill and bid adios to Chubasco. We drove across a dirt field to the station. Patricio was just arriving and, thankfully, he had gas. We filled up the Land Cruiser tanks, then the jerry cans for the boats, and jostled with Patricio about the few extra pesos that had mysteriously appeared at the end of our purchase.

We drove up the road past Dos Pinos to the spring and filled our water jugs. A young boy came from a nearby house. It was his job to ensure the safety of the pump and that water wasn't wasted. He helped us fill the containers and wanted to know where we had been fishing. When we were done we tipped him a few pesos and headed north to Las Cuevitas. As we roared along the road, throwing dust into the air that was visible for miles, we knew the camp was watching and could see our column across the miles of desert. "Get the beer ready" we thought, "we're coming home!"

At camp I checked the smoking fish. The caramel marinade had formed a thick layer as they had cooked slowly over the coals and the smoking wood. We passed plates around and it was gone in minutes. As the shadows lengthened the few that had made an afternoon fishing run returned with a few bottom fish, which they cleaned and put on ice. They had gone back to the place where we had caught game fish so well that morning, but had not had any luck. It was always a best-guess deal with the variables of lunar cycle, the weather, the water temperature and who knows what other issues.

Copyright 2003-2006 Mike Humfreville

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